Kathleen Parker wrote an interesting column in last Sunday’s Washington Post about how Waxman-Markey would affect America’s reliance on the import of transportation fuel. Part of her argument is that, because extraction and processing of oil is more expensive in North America than in the Middle East, a cap on carbon would negatively impact the competitiveness of Canadian oil compared to, say, oil from Saudi Arabia. This means that whatever the environmental benefits of the bill, Waxman-Markey would hurt U.S. energy security since it would cause the United States to import more oil from places potentially less friendly than our neighbors to the north.
I am not going to argue against Ms. Parker’s positions on imported oil or on Waxman-Markey. But one of her statements, that “the only way to be less dependent, obviously, is to produce as much domestic oil as possible” is a little misleading, since it forgets about domestic and North American alternatives to oil, especially natural gas, which is both domestically abundant and the cleanest burning of all the fossil fuels.
In 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Review, the nation’s total consumption of petroleum products in 2008 was 37.1 quadrillion Btu (quads, Table 1.3), 27.6 quads of which we imported (Table 1.1). So in one sense, we were about 75 percent dependent on foreign oil and related products. On the other hand, total consumption of all energy sources was 99.3 quads in 2008 (Table 1.1), so from the perspective of total energy consumption, our dependence on foreign petroleum was more like 28 percent.
If Ms. Parker and others are correct that carbon requirements are inevitable, then the United States will become more dependent on foreign oil, as more of the oil we use will be imported. But this may not worsen our dependence provided we turn to domestically available alternatives such as natural gas. To use a silly example, I am currently 100 percent dependent on AGA’s supply of white-out for my hard-copy correction needs, but probably only 0.0001 percent dependent on white-out to perform my job because I rely on other methods to correct my (frequent) errors. My white-out dependence is not a problem because it is relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
Joking aside, oil is not going to go the way of white-out anytime soon. But if we can offset the consumption of foreign oil with domestic alternatives we will be taking a step in the right direction. Ms. Parker suggests more stringent CAFE standards as a method to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Another possible solution is to use natural gas in place of oil for transportation purposes, considering that natural gas is one of the most available, scalable, and environmentally friendly fuels out there that is ready today. Natural gas can be used in transportation applications, emits 25 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, and is produced domestically on a resource base that continues to increase. Natural gas will not eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, but its increased production and use certainly takes a step in the right direction.